The fierceness of the midday sun wanes into a balmy afternoon haze as I lock my bike at the foot of the escarpment. Picking my way among the gritstone boulders as I near the top of the ridge, my pannier straps gently cutting into each side of my neck, I steady myself against the easterly wind, and look out over the Derbyshire Dales below. Perfection. Half-remembered shards of childhood days: sheltering under rocks among the heather; the snare-roll of waterproofs flapping in the wind; the feeling of soft, damp earth lodging under fingernails. I am at home.
I’m not a believer in the phrase ‘do something every day that scares you’. If I did that, I’m fairly sure I would be dead of a heart attack by 30. That said, however, fear is a good motivator, and my blood begins to pump as I stand at the top of the five-meter chimney of rock funnelling down to a ledge just over halfway up the rock face. I feel a little out of my depth as my feet, with little experience of real-world climbing, stretch tentatively for safe purchase in the rock. Dropping down onto the ledge, a cursory glance back up the chimney puts things in perspective: not very technical at all, but the fear of the forward lean towards the edge of the ledge at the bottom keeps me from complacency as I retrace my foot- and hand-holds back up and begin to lower down my panniers on a length of rope, the yellow waterproof fabric rasping against the chimney as it narrows towards its bottom. I rejoin my baggage and then tentatively shuffle along the ledge, layered slabs of sloping but not slippery sandstone, in total not more than a meter wide, before hopping into a small bowl of a ledge worn round by a hundred millennia of erosion. I am home.
Caves have long been a symbol of hermitic isolation, housing searchers, fruitcases, and wackjobs in harsh, serene solitude since before time was invented. Were it not for the innumerable scratchings and carvings of however many selfish idiots who thought it best to commemorate their fleeting presence in this incredible natural nook by vandalising it, to sit in the dark solitude of the cave, letting the fading light crawl over the horizon, is to feel you could be sitting here at any point in human history. I am enveloped in total silence, sheltered from the wind which plays lightly with the tufts of grass clinging to the fringes of the ledge outside. There is a little room to stand in places, but for the most part I stoop, descending to a crawl as I reach the back parts of the cave, which could probably accommodate up to six or seven people with reasonable comfort. I am, for now, alone.
Towards sunset, two boys peer over the top of the rock face. One looks as if he’s still in his school uniform under a light coat; the other sports a metal look, looking spry in his skinny jeans as the wind whips his hair back into his eyes. They’ve driven for an hour and a half to see if they get to some caves somewhere along the escarpment – they’re not at all hard to find – before sundown. I show them the way down the chimney and across the ledge, and though we share the same sense of awe and interest in the age-old curves and cracks in the rocks, reddened slightly in the dying light, they seem rather taken aback by my sleeping gear, surprised that I’m spending two nights here. A step too far, perhaps – the temperature is dropping, and even being out of the wind won’t stop the air temperature coming down to 4oC. After waving the two lads off over the top of the ridge as they head back to their car, I slide into my sleeping bag and tighten the drawstring around my face, my breath steaming in the beam of my headtorch. The moment I turn it off, I am in pitch darkness. I am, again, alone.
I am here to clear my head, to seal myself hermetically – and hermitically, if only for a short time – in a bubble of my own thinking, to see the path in front of me of the next year and a bit and ride it in my mind. I must be resilient; as much as I hope to meet people along the way, I ride alone, and if I am to succeed I must be able to rely on my own abilities and, perhaps more importantly, my own perceptions.
I load the panniers back onto the bike and pedal east towards Sheffield. The buildings blur into one, the faces in the crowd competing with memories of the cave’s silence. I board a southbound train, the window a screen whose reflections play over the black night. I am, again, alone.
Tomorrow I wake from a dream over four years in the making. There is no certainty that I will complete what will undoubtedly be the biggest challenge of my life, but there is complete certainty that if I don’t at least try, I will never forgive myself.
Over the next fourteen months I hope to cycle around the world, covering over 19,000 miles, visiting 30-odd countries along the way and passing, with any luck, through two exactly antipodean points on the globe. The two main criteria for me to make this a ‘round the world’ trip are travelling over 18,000 miles and the antipodes: I am not out to set records, so as for other circumnavigation criteria, I’m happy to take a back seat and let the pleasure of choosing my route trump geodata and rules on recrossing points of longitude.
I’m not setting out a detailed route plan here, as the path of the journey may yet change somewhat and, much as it grieves me, this will not be a continuous, unbroken trip: I can attribute this largely to my type one diabetes. My prescriptions will only get me as far as Kazakhstan, and if I try and buy insulin along the route I will not only spend more time, money, and insulin stopping to do so, but I will also have to contend with a myriad of bureaucracy, and no insurer will cover the costs of getting insulin abroad – apparently they’re happy enough to insure me for any length of time despite the fact that many countries don’t allow more than three months’ supply of medication to be brought ‘imported’. However, unless I want to be making three return trips to the UK during my ride, I have to buy insulin in some places: I’ve calculated that it actually costs more to stay where I am and buy insulin than it does to fly back to the UK and get it for free, but at the moment I will have to spend that money simply to maintain a sense of normalcy and continuity to this trip.
This brings me, rather nicely, to the whys of this journey. To the question ‘why are you doing this?’ I could give any of the following answers:
Why the hell not?
I can’t think of any better way to travel than by bike
I’m only young once, and I’ve managed to OK this trip with my girlfriend so I can’t screw it up!
Let’s see some of the world before it disappears: there are too many people and cultures out there not to stoke my curiosity
My parents want to redecorate my childhood bedroom so it’s a good way of getting me out of the house (yes, I’m the cool kid still living at home at nearly 25)
But to be honest, one of the biggest motivators for me is to try and say a big, hearty FUCK YOU to my diabetes. When I was diagnosed, I thought my world had collapsed around me, and even today, though I’ve been living with it for nearly 11 years, I still struggle to wrest control of my life from it. At its most cruel, my blood glucose affects my mental state to the point where I can’t tell whether my emotions are truly my own. For me, this journey is a chance to take back control. I have seen people living and succeeding with diabetes, and seen the success of diabetic cyclists competing internationally, in ultra-endurance events, and touring on individual trips. But to be honest, I’ve never read of any type one diabetic trying to cycle around the world (though I’m more than happy to be proven wrong on this!). A friend once warned me about becoming the architect of my own prison, but I’d like to try to be an example to all diabetics that it can be done. I don’t want to be the lightest, or the fastest. I just want to finish to show that I can.
Until the last few days, I’ll be quite honest, my most pertinent emotions at this point were fear and anger. Fear of ‘failure’, of injury (or worse), of not wanting to continue; anger at myself for not preparing enough, at the myriad legal and logistical hurdles I have to jump just to get on the same playing field as any other cycle tourist, at the eye-watering costs involved with getting hold of insulin and other essential medications overseas. If nothing else, I hope that I can become less fearful, less angry, and more understanding and appreciative of my place in the world and how I can use it to help others. There is nothing I can do now but turn my face to tomorrow and meet it with the determination to start this journey.
For today, it’s adieu. I cannot properly express my gratitude to those who have already given me the years of support underpinning my confidence to attempt this trip, as well as to those I’ve not shown my proper appreciation and thanks to - you have made me who I am. I should be contactable via Facebook, WhatsApp, email, and through this website, so hopefully I’ll manage to get some things published with some level of frequency. The excitement is starting to build. Tomorrow morning has been a long time coming.